The blame game over the sequester

Congressional Republicans and President Obama jockeyed to blame each other for $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts.

What happened

Congressional Republicans and President Obama jockeyed to blame each other this week for $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts initiated by an automatic budget trigger called the “sequester.” As the March 1 sequester was due to kick in, the two parties were far apart on any deal to replace its mandatory cuts with either more-targeted cuts or a mix of cuts and tax increases. Instead, both sides maneuvered to win the battle of public opinion. The president said he was willing to negotiate a more sensible deficit-reduction plan that would include tax reform, Medicare cuts, and new revenues from eliminating tax breaks for the oil industry and hedge fund millionaires, but blamed the sequester on Republican lawmakers who, he said, “refuse to compromise even an inch.” But GOP leaders said Obama came up with the sequester in the first place, during debt-ceiling negotiations in 2011, and blamed him for causing the deadlock by demanding a second tax increase in two months. “The American people know if the president gets more money they’re going to spend it,” said House Speaker John Boehner.

The White House warned that the sequester’s mandated spending cuts would result in longer security lines in airports, food shortages caused by reduced meat and produce inspection, and damage to the military’s ability to defend the country. Republicans accused the White House of deliberately trying to make the cuts as painful as possible, instead of shifting resources within departments. A Pew poll found that 45 percent of the public would blame Republicans for the sequester, with 32 percent blaming Obama.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

What the editorials said

It’s a “Nanny State Armageddon!” said the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Obama insists that the sequester will force him to close 100 air traffic control centers, cut 31,000 teaching jobs, and end pre-school for 70,000 children. But the $85 billion in cuts represents about 2.2 percent of our bloated, $3.8 trillion federal budget.

That’s deliberately deceptive, said The Baltimore Sun. The sequester only impacts discretionary spending, not the entitlements that make up the bulk of our budget, “so the consequences are severe.” How can Republicans insist on deep cuts for the national parks, schools, and food-safety inspections, while leaving “$8 billion in oil-industry subsidies untouched”? Republicans have been “utterly irresponsible” in this debate, said The Washington Post. But the president’s “being less irresponsible” is hardly a comfort. Obama ought to be leading the way to sensible entitlement reform and deficit reduction, not joining in this “stupid fight over a stupid budget issue.”

What the columnists said

Both sides do not deserve blame, said Jonathan Chait in Obama has offered to negotiate a deal containing virtually everything Republicans say they want—tax reform, $400 billion in Medicare cuts over 10 years, and more than $1 trillion in deficit reduction over that same period. And yet the GOP said no, simply because the deal would include eliminating some tax deductions for the rich. Every other priority the party once had, including national defense, has been sacrificed to protect the rich from higher taxes. But once the pain of these cuts becomes very real after April 1 or so, the “brand damage will be undeniable,” and defense hawks and party pragmatists will crawl out of the woodwork to “cut a deal.”

Don’t be so sure, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. “Government by freak-out carries a price,” and Americans will tire of President Obama’s constant scare tactics. All the GOP wants is a comprehensive plan to reduce the deficit without more of Obama’s class-warfare-driven tax increases. “That’s not very radical.”

The next few weeks will be ugly, said Caroline Baum in All that matters to our political leaders is “who gets what, who wins, who loses, and who gets blamed.” In that context, maybe the sequester “isn’t such a bad idea.” Once it kicks in, Congress and the White House will be forced to spread around the cuts sensibly, and the public interest will finally trump self-interest. It’s about the dumbest approach to budgeting you can possibly imagine, said Andrew Sullivan in “But with this Congress, dumb is as good as we’ll ever get.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.